The current issue of Newsweek magazine had a column that, like so many things, caught my attention momentarily, but, unlike most things, actually held it for a few minutes. In Steven Levy’s The Technologist column, he’s written a piece about an upcoming game for the Xbox 360 (though he spells it "PS2") called Guitar Hero.
Instead of a traditional controller, Guitar Hero uses a replica guitar, or "axe" to use the vernacular. Instead of strings, there are a series of buttons along the frets for the left hand, and a strummy bit and whammy bar for the right. The object of the game is to "play along" with music on screen by pressing the fret-buttons and the strummy bit in time with the color-coded prompts, then totally wailing on the whammy bar when it comes time for some sick shredding. The gameplay is a bit like the game Simon, but with a guitar instead of a thing that looks like Dr. Theopolis’ intellectually stunted younger brother.
The part of the piece that really got me thinking was what people in the journalism business (called "journos" by my friends in the PR business) call a "pull quote". This particular pull quote reads "If a teenager can become a make-believe guitar hero, will he ever bother to master the real thing?"
I thought this was a really interesting question … when is the simulated experience "enough"? Will Guitar Hero lead to a national hair-band deficit? To badly paraphrase the character Syndrome from the movie The Incredibles, if everyone can be talented, will anyone?
Levy’s column quotes the game’s developer as saying that the intent " … is to provide the thrills of real musicianship to those who would not otherwise have the opportunity." In other words, it is, in effect, a guitar simulator, which will start to slowly drag me around to the closest thing I’ve got to a point.
Now, I fancy myself a musician (not precisely in the same way that I sometimes fancy myself the Archbishop of Canterbury), and dabble in a number of instruments, but not even the most charitable or hard of hearing would ever use the term "hero" to describe my talent. In fact, if musicians were superheroes, with Batman and Superman jammin’ in the Hall of Justice, you’d find me in purple tights dressed as Zan in a drunken Wonder Twins cover band, working for free pork sandwiches in a bar on the bad side of Gotham.
But I digress.
Anyway, I’ve played Guitar Hero a couple of times. It is strangely addicting – a less humiliating Dance, Dance Revolution for the moderately sedentary. But, interestingly, my pre-existing and non-boastworthy musical prowess didn’t give me any advantage when it came to gameplay – for the first two or three minutes, I was actually worse at pretending to be a guitar player than I am at being a guitar player. By minute four, I was less humiliated, and, after a half hour or so, the noise I was making was considerably better than anything I’m capable of in reality. While this was satisfying on some levels, I wasn’t really developing any skills that would help me the next time I picked up the real thing. But, it’s important to point out that it also didn’t discourage me from playing – for me, Guitar Hero’s virtual experience was largely detached from the real thing.
So what in the name of Eddie Van Hendrix does this have to do with Flight Simulator? Well, the parallels are pretty obvious, I suppose, so I’m more interested in the differences.
First of all, flying can be a dangerously unforgiving activity whereas being a bad musician is very rarely fatal – I’m living proof of that.
Second, flying is very expensive. Not that music lessons aren’t, but just about anyone can pick up a cheap used guitar at a yard sale and use it to make some noise. Even if they sound as bad as, say, Nickelback, they are actually playing a guitar, possibly even for less than the price of the game. The retail cost of Flight Simulator X will pretty easily get you an introductory flying lesson, but that’s a one-time thing.
Finally, even on the most basic of setups, Flight Simulator can teach you a lot about flying an airplane. What you learn about navigation, avionics, traffic patterns, etc, by using FS can actually help you learn to be a better pilot. Flight simulation in general is used in training pilots of all kinds – the next time you get on an airliner, bear in mind the the copilot might be flying, and it’s entirely possible that they’ve never been in this kind of airplane before, having done all their training in a simulator with lower-quality visuals (but better flight models and frame rates that are about $30 million higher) than FSX. When properly applied, flight simulation can develop talent while a game like Guitar Hero presents itself as an unapologetic (and rightfully so) substitute for talent.
So what about Levy’s question when applied to Flight Simulator? If someone can become a virtual pilot, will they ever bother to master the real thing? Well, given the fact that we have many more customers than there are pilots in the world, the answer appears to be a qualified "maybe". We hear from FS customers all the time who have used it to learn more about flying, or who were inspired to go on and become pilots. Others may be former pilots, or those that otherwise don’t fly because of other circumstances. But, obviously, the numbers don’t lie – some significant percentage of our customer base use Flight Simulator instead of actually flying.
After thinking out loud about this, my remaining question is "Does it matter?" While there appears to be no shortage of guitar players, there has been a decline in the overall number of pilots. However, there is no evidence to suggest that a product like Flight Simulator makes the real thing any less appealing – the fact that a lot of people can credibly recreate the experience of flying an airplane on their PC does nothing to devalue my skills as a genuine certified aviator. I’m every bit as pretentious and overly full of myself as I’ve always been.
So, whether you fly airplanes or computers, or both, whether you play a vintage Les Paul Goldtop or a Playstation, or both, everybody invests something a little different in the experience, and sees different rewards. As I see it, the awareness and enthusiasm raised and expressed in the virtual world will ultimately enhance the real one, and not detract from it.
Several paragraphs ago, I threatened that there would be some kind of a point to this, and, since I’m too lazy to edit, I’ll try to deliver:
As long as you’re not hurting anyone, not crashing innocent airplanes that I might want to fly myself one day, and not reviving disco … and most importantly having fun, then the difference between real and virtual isn’t all that important. Unless your parents disagree that is – if they tell you to get off the couch and go outside, you probably should. Oh, and, umm … winners don’t do drugs.